“In this corruption-dominated country, our judiciary is the only protection. Do not destroy it or even weaken it,” late Ram Jethmalani told then Calcutta High Court judge Justice CS Karnan a stinging public letter in March 2017.
Jethmalani pointed out a very basic thing about the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, in his letter. Judiciary is the last hope for aam aadmi. And, the Supreme Court is the last door that can be knocked on for justice. Its credibility must not only be impeccable, but also appear so in the public eye.
But the credibility of the judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court as an institution, has faced serious challenges on at least three occasions in the last three years.
In January 2018, four judges of the Supreme Court — Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, MB Lokur and Kurian Joseph — addressed a press conference. This was an “extraordinary event”, and an unprecedented one in the history of the Supreme Court.
Speaking for all the four judges, Justice Chelameswar said, “It is an extraordinary event in the history of this institution. The administration of the Supreme Court is not in order. Many things that are less than desirable have happened in the last few months… Unless this institution is preserved, democracy will not survive in this country.”
Justice Dipak Misra was the Chief Justice of India then. Justice Chelameswar retired, and the next senior judge, Justice Gogoi, became the CJI after Justice Misra in October 2018.
The third serious challenge to the Supreme Court’s credibility came six months after Justice Gogoi took charge as the CJI — that is, in April 2019. A junior assistant of the Supreme Court sent out an affidavit to 22 judges of the Supreme Court accusing then-CJI Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
The woman alleged that the incident took place on October 10 and 11, 2018 at the residence office of Justice Gogoi. She had been transferred to Justice Gogoi’s residence office in August 2018, at his insistence, the woman alleged. Previously, she was a junior court assistant in Justice Vikramjit Sen’s court.
She had been terminated in December 2018 by the Supreme Court administration on the charge of indiscipline and insubordination. She said that her husband and his brother — both with the Delhi Police — were also suspended in alleged connection with her case against Justice Gogoi.
On April 20, the day after the woman alleged sexual harassment, Justice Gogoi held a special sitting of the Supreme Court. It was a Saturday. The bench also comprised Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna. Calling it a “conspiracy to destabilise the office of the CJI”, Justice Gogoi remarked in the Supreme Court, “This is unbelievable. I don't think I should stoop low even to deny these allegations. Nobody can catch me on money; people have to find something, and they have found this.”
The secretary-general of the Supreme Court released a statement, calling allegations against Justice Gogoi as “false” and “scurrilous”.
A three-member internal committee of inquiry was constituted, comprising Justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana and Indira Banerjee. The woman objected to the presence of Justice Ramana in the inquiry committee citing his proximity to Justice Gogoi. Justice Ramana recused himself and was replaced by Justice Indu Malhotra.
Another court-appointed committee under Justice (retired) AK Patnaik was tasked with probing if there was a “deeper conspiracy” behind the allegations levelled by the Supreme Court staffer. Reports suggested that agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing and also the Central Bureau of Investigation were directed to help the Justice Patnaik panel. The three-judge internal committee gave a clean chit to Justice Gogoi saying there was “no substance” in the allegations levelled by the woman.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Police had registered an FIR against the woman on the charge that she took a bribe from a Haryana man for getting him a job. The case was closed without extending an explanation.
Justice Patnaik committee submitted its report later, stating the matter needed further probe, in September 2019. Justice Gogoi retired on November 17, 2019.
Now, it has emerged in news reports that the woman has been reinstated in Supreme Court. She was reinstated before Justice Gogoi was superannuated. The woman joined back and proceeded on a long leave. It happened so quietly that nobody from the outside came to know about it. She is reported to have resumed her job. She has been given salaries and allowances as arrears for the period of her “termination”.
But this has opened up many questions that are unanswered in the entire process.
What was the sexual harassment case all about?
Was the woman framing the then-CJI?
If not, then why were the Supreme Court’s own guidelines, which say that statement of a “victim” in the cases of sexual harassment is enough as evidence, not followed in this case? The burden of proof in such cases lies on the accused.
If the three-judge bench did not find any substance in the allegations, what did it actually conclude in its internal probe? The woman had quit the internal probe after three appearances and the probe report was submitted ex parte.
Was Justice Patnaik committee report followed up with any detailed probe? What happened to it?
Was someone trying to fix the Supreme Court judges in general and the CJI in particular?
These are the questions that need to be answered in order to uphold the credibility of the Supreme Court in the eyes of the people. Remember Jethmalani’s words: the judiciary is the only protection for the people of India.